If California's new "three strikes" law governed civic leadership, most every elected official in Orange County would be looking for other employment.
When asked to name a leader in the county--and given three chances to do so--more than half of the 600 registered voters interviewed in a Times Orange County Poll May 19-22 could not utter a single name.
Of those who could provide names, respondents most often mentioned county Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Gaddi H. Vasquez, and Sheriff Brad Gates, but no leader was named by more than 11% of those questioned.
Some looked more to Orange County-based corporations, naming Taco Bell and hamburger giant Carl's Jr., rather than individual politicians or business leaders. One respondent even named Richard Nixon to the local leadership list in the poll taken nearly a month after the former President's nationally televised funeral.
The void cited by poll respondents seems to be taking its toll on the public's general confidence in government's ability to deal with such serious issues as the lagging economy, increasing concerns about crime, immigration, gridlock and lack of affordable housing.
Only 9% of those polled said they have a lot of confidence in their city's elected officials to deal with the area's problems, while 40% said they have little or no confidence. And only 5% have a great deal of confidence in county leaders, while 46% have little or none.
"If people don't have a clear sense of who their leaders are, I think it's very difficult to solve some of the troubles we're facing today," said Mark Baldassare, who conducted the poll. "I think people sense there is a void."
For San Clemente florist Cheri Miramontes, 43, one of the poll respondents, local leadership has been virtually "invisible." Although Supervisor Riley has represented the South County for two decades, Miramontes said she barely recognized the name, let alone knew him as her county supervisor. The other four supervisors didn't even register on her political radar screen.
"I don't see what any of them are doing," Miramontes said. "I know they aren't doing anything about crime. Maybe they are having lunch in Newport Beach."
Miramontes said the absence of any identifiable guidance is particularly troubling as the county struggles to deal with rising unemployment and, especially, crime.
"This county used to be such a prosperous area," she said. "Now people are struggling, and they don't know where to turn."
Daniel Kim, a 20-year-old tutor and college student of Buena Park, was one in the 56% who could not identify a single county leader.
"They don't make a significant impact," Kim said. "That's why I don't know who they are. Orange County has always been more of an upper-class area, where there is money in politics. It's kind of a game. If they are just going to play that game, I guess it doesn't matter who is (in charge)."
Like Miramontes, Kim said he is concerned about increasing crime and the spread of violence to areas virtually untouched in the past.
"Whoever is in charge of the Sheriff's Department needs to tighten up," he said."
County supervisors may be the ranking political leaders in the county, but poll respondents found them to be either unknown quantities or not very popular.
For example, state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who is running unopposed to succeed the retiring Riley, is better known and better liked among voters than the supervisors she is expected to join, according to the poll.
About 25% expressed favorable views toward Riley, Vasquez and Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder. Supervisors Roger R. Stanton, who took office in 1980, and William G. Steiner, appointed last year, were the least known on the board.
The popularity rating of Steiner, newest member of the board, stood three points below that of his predecessor, Don R. Roth. The Roth rating was taken two years ago, before Roth's resignation and conviction on state ethics charges.
While 40% of the voters found the board members to be performing well at promoting the county as a business center, three in 10 or fewer gave them equal grades for leadership, maintaining high ethical standards and representing the views of local residents.
Retired Newport Beach businesswoman Lucy Erickson, another poll respondent, said she believes politicians are often and unfairly the target of community discontent. Part of the minority in the poll who believe government and business leaders are doing a good job, Erickson said she is "shocked" that more people don't take greater interest in their communities.
Erickson knew the names of several county leaders. And she said she was more than familiar with state Sen. Bergeson as a leader--Erickson described Bergeson as an acquaintance and has followed her political career closely.
Elected officials "are donating a lot of their time to public service," Erickson said. "I think it's a cop-out for people to say that they don't know who they should turn to or what's going on. . . . I know Marian Bergeson to be a woman of her word."
Bergeson was not the only one singled out for praise. Of the few local leaders who merited recognition, Sheriff Gates won the highest marks for job performance of any county official.
Slightly more than 50% of the voters polled said Gates was doing an excellent or good job. However, Gates' county law enforcement colleague, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, did not fare as well. About as many voters--36%--said they were unaware of Capizzi's performance as rated his work as excellent or good.
With few exceptions, Baldassare said, the poll results tell a story of a relatively "immature" county whose leadership has become fragmented with each new municipal incorporation.
It is also a region, the pollster said, whose identity has become muddled, partly due to its lack of a major television station that could beam local news, events and people to Orange County homes.
One of the first hints of a potential leadership crisis in Orange County came last September when some South County officials, frustrated by the lack of progress in planning the civilian conversion of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, lashed out at the Board of Supervisors.
The skirmish spotlighted the county board's diminishing influence as the region's dominant political force and the emergence of both the new and established cities as rival political forces.
Last fall, former Irvine Mayor Sally Ann Sheridan described the lack of political consensus on El Toro as a "fundamental issue" in the future of Orange County government.
"Who is it going to be governed by?" Sheridan asked at the time. "A group of dinosaurs who make $80,000 a year each and do not have a mandate of the people?"
Said Baldassare: "I think we're at a real turning point in Orange County. We have a military base closing. Jobs are not coming like they used to. Building has slowed down. We're trying to find ourselves. But when people can't focus on a set of people to deal with these issues, there are real serious limitations."
Times Orange County Poll: Tough Test: Name Your Leader
When asked in a Times Orange County Poll to name an Orange County leader, more than half of voters cannot name anyone. Nevertheless, they did have something to say about the Board of Supervisors, namely that its ability to provide overall leadership has slipped in recent years. And two in three voters say that homeowner and neighborhood groups have too little influence in decisions affecting Orange County.
When you think of Orange County's leaders, what names come to mind? (up to three responses accepted) O.C. voters None, no one, can't think of any: 56% One leader named: 22% Two leaders named: 11% Three leaders named: 11% *
Top names mentioned (shown are responses 5% or higher): O.C. voters Thomas F. Riley: 11% Gaddi H. Vasquez: 11% Brad Gates: 10% Harriett M. Wieder: 8% Marian Bergeson: 6% *
Do you have a favorable or an unfavorable opinion of the following people in Orange County politics. . . .
North South Favorable Unfavorable Don't know County County Marian Bergeson 37% 12% 51% 33% 48% Thomas F. Riley 26% 16% 58% 23% 33% Gaddi H. Vasquez 24% 11% 65% 21% 32% Harriett M. Wieder 24% 18% 58% 21% 29% Roger R. Stanton 17% 9% 74% 17% 17% William G. Steiner 16% 6% 78% 18% 12%
How would you rate the Orange County Board of Supervisors' handling of the following areas of government in the past few years?
Excellent, good Fair Poor Fostering the county as a 40% 38% 22% place to do business Providing overall leadership 31% 53% 16% Maintaining integrity and 29% 43% 28% high ethical standards Representing the views of local residents 27% 45% 28%
Percent rating as excellent, good 1988 1992 1994 Fostering the county as a place to do business 69% 40% 40% Providing overall leadership 37% 27% 31% Maintaining integrity and high ethical standards N/A 34% 29% Representing the views of local residents 30% 29% 27%
When it comes to decisions affecting Orange County, how much influence does each of the following have?
Too Right Too Don't little amount much know Homeowner and neighborhood groups 68% 20% 8% 4% Public employee and other labor unions 36% 32% 22% 10% Business leaders 30% 32% 29% 9% City officials 23% 36% 32% 9% County supervisors 14% 36% 37% 13% Developers 12% 20% 60% 8%
How much confidence do you have in the abilities of city or county government leaders to effectively deal with today's local issues, such as the economy, crime, immigration, traffic, growth and housing?
City leaders County leaders A lot 9% 5% Some 46% 45% Not much 30% 33% None 10% 13% Don't know 5% 4%
How would you rate the job performance of Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates?
How would you rate the job performance of Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi?
O.C. North South voters Republicans Democrats County County Excellent, good 34% 37% 32% 32% 39% Fair 23% 23% 24% 26% 15% Poor 7% 6% 6% 7% 6% Don't know 36% 34% 38% 35% 40%
Source: Times Orange County Poll